Do they even know we’re here?
My university doesn’t give a monkey’s about me. I’m one of several hundred employees, and as in any organisation that size, my hopes and dreams, my own trials and tribulations, are essentially irrelevant. The ideal situation is that your personal missions in life overlap with those of your job. If they don’t, and you can’t reconcile the differences, then you’re probably in the wrong business. This of course assumes that you have a choice about what you do and where you work. The sociologist in me also knows that the business you’re in informs what you hope and dream for, but that’s a discussion for another day.
An organisation can’t possibly ‘care’ about you: it’s not an animal/person, even if we – and particularly advertisers and brand managers – like to associate companies, teams, and so on, with personalities. If you have large groups of people arranged around various tasks and responsibilities, with a chain of command, then it can’t be personal. It’s not a family. It’s not a democracy, either, and even if it was, you can’t please everyone all the time. That’s not to say that you can’t have a culture that looks values and fosters collegiality, decency, positive morale and sound mental health, you can (and should). But at the same time, we’re cogs in a machine – we need maintenance and oil, but we’re basically replaceable components.
The Point of Invisibility
At one level, I’m asking a philosophical question here, but at the same time it’s a practical one: when is it, within an organisation, that individuals become lost, or invisible? The point at which people ‘vanish’ will depend on the organisation and the people in it. My direct superior, my Head of Department certainly knows a fair amount about my current projects, teaching, and other responsibilities because he’s dished most of them out. He also knows a fair amount about my life outside work. His boss, the Faculty Dean, knows a fair bit less, so the invisibility starts setting in there. The further removed you are, the less you can know. What is unusual at my current university is that the ‘boss of bosses’, my Vice Chancellor, knows me by name; this is because it’s a relatively small place but also because he makes it a point to know everyone who works for him. But he can’t know that much, so I’ve faded further into insignificance there, and I doubt that I enter his thoughts when he makes wide-reaching decisions.
I acknowledge that this fading and vanishing happens ‘beneath’ me, too. I have a pretty good sense, individually and collectively, of the 25 students I see twice a week. How well they do is partly down to me – I can explain, nudge, and advise as best I can, but it’s probably 20% me, 70% them, and 10% whatever else is going on around them. I’m also ‘responsible’ for about 120 students doing final year research projects, across three campuses. At various points this year I’ll probably teach about two thirds of them a few times, and I supervise some, but many of them I don’t know and never talk to. So quite a few of them are invisible to me, too, but I’ve designed the course, and work with other supervisors, in a way that I hope will help them. It does in the main, from experience, and we tweak and improve the course every year based on feedback. However, I have very little influence over the end result, but still have an agreed ‘target’ with my boss, which to get the cohort’s average over 60% (a B grade). This target is reasonable and achievable – it’s not far from where we’ve been in the past – but my job and promotion prospects are not on the line if it doesn’t happen if he knows that I’m doing what I can.
We have our own goals and those that are set out by our employers. These usually fit within the job description, which if you didn’t have, you’d have little idea of what to work on. Provided the goals are relevant, meaningful, and achievable – within reason – this is can work well. A target is often quite specific (i.e. measurable) and they’re common in most walks of life, from sports to sales. They can be useful when you have a lot of people in an organisation, as you have to ‘rationalise’ things – to ‘manage’ a system where people know what is expected of them. This is the alchemy of leadership, of steering a ship manned by hundreds or thousands of people towards where you want it to go. Some of this rationalisation comes about through the use of numbers, of working out how long things take, how much things cost, and this allows you see where changes are happening, where things need to be done.
But imagine what happens if those numbers are wrong. Let’s say, for example, that an academic is contracted to work something like 1500 hours a year (i.e. after holidays). You say that they’re timetabled to teach and supervise for 200 hours, and then give them an equal amount of time for additional teaching-related tasks (marking, class preparation etc) . What if the hours spent in front of students are right (after all, they’re timetabled), but the additional work is two to three times what you’ve allocated? Then consider the other things they’re expected to do, like research, writing papers and attending conferences, as well as being part of departmental and university committees. Your expectations of what they’re capable of then starts to fall apart, and it’s really in tatters if your calculations of non-teaching activities are out of whack. Either staff will underperform according to your expectations, or they end up working much longer hours. Maybe both.
The plot in the Tale of the Disappearing Academics, though, is about to become even hazier, and could lead to Death by Numbers. What if some the numbers you’re collecting and making decisions on are wrong in the sense that they don’t capture what they’re supposed to? Teaching hours are one thing, but there a great many other things that are counted and compared within universities. I’ve written for some time that a great many of them don’t actually measure the thing they claim to – they may be related, but often only weakly. How happy your students are does not necessarily mean that your teaching is good, the proportion of students who drop out may have nothing to do with your teaching quality, and how many of international staff you employ does not, in itself make you a world-leading university, either. The list of these things is endless, and of course focusing on these can lead to huge amounts of wasted time, effort, and exhausted, frustrated (invisible) people.
Shooting in The Dark?
This question of vanishing people and dodgy data is not just about academics; we only make up about half of the staff in higher education, and we’d be lost without most of the other half. This just as much about anyone who makes organisational, national, or global policy. Bringing about change where large numbers of people are involved is almost unfeasibly complex but this makes it incredibly interesting, and it can be done. But a focus on misleading numbers and targets is hugely unhelpful, and they proliferate across education, health, the penal system, and so on. Counting things is often useful, but the numbers themselves may misrepresent the reality of people they impact. If we start to see the world solely through erroneous spreadsheets, then we’re asking people we can’t see – and don’t understand – to do things which we ourselves don’t understand, either. The outcomes are likely to range from pointless, to unhelpful, or even outright disastrous.